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Mar 23

Project Manager vs Product Manager vs Product Owner

Project Manager vs Product Manager vs Product Owner

We’re seeing more and more Product Manager and Product Owner opportunities on the market. The Product-centric roles seem to be more lucrative and future-proof than the Project Manager profession. Interestingly, two variants of the Product Manager role co-exist on the market, and one of them is currently emerging as a byproduct of the agile transformation. Let’s compare the Product Manager – Product Owner – Project Manager trio from a candidate’s and an organization’s standpoints.

Project Manager vs. Product Manager

It used to be believed that Product Managers were limited to the manufacturing sector and that the service sector was in the sole possession of Project Managers. However, it is no longer the case. Since the financial, healthcare, e-commerce, construction, and leisure industries have taken over the “product approach”, also known as product-oriented management, there are significantly more opportunities for product managers. Project managers are now in decline. In figure 2. you can see that being on time, budget, and deliver requirements stands for the project manager’s position, regardless of the name of the job advert.

However, if your success is to be measured in business objectives and outcomes such as revenue, and if your focus is on feature and business value delivery, you are dealing with the Product Manager opening. Again, Product Managers are compatible with both the manufacturing and the service sectors. Please have a look at the table by Mik Kersten, and note the red underlining.

Table 1. Project-Oriented Management vs. Product-Oriented Management.

Project-Oriented Management Product-Oriented Management
Budgeting Funding of milestones, pre-defined at project scoping. A new budget requires the creation of a new project. Funding for product value streams based on business results. New budget allocation based on demand. An incentive to deliver incremental results.
Time Frames Term of the project (e.g., one year). Defined end date. Not focused on the maintenance/health after the project ends. The product lifecycle (multiple years), includes ongoing health/maintenance activities through end of life.
Success Cost center approach. Measured to being on time and budget. Capitalization of development results in large projects. Business incentivized to ask for everything they might need upfront. Profit center approach. Measured in business objectives and outcomes met (e.g., revenue). Focus on incremental value delivery and regular checkpoint.
Risk Delivery risks, such as product/market fit, is maximized by forcing all learning, specification, and strategic decision making to occur upfront. Risk is spread across the time frame and iterations of the project. This creates option value, such as terminating the project if delivery assumptions were incorrect or pivoting if strategic opportunities arise.
Teams Bring people to work: allocated upfront, people often span multiple projects, frequent churn and re-assignment. Bring work to the people: stable, incrementally adjusted, cross-functional teams assigned to one value stream.
Prioritization PPM and project-plan-driven. Focus on requirements delivery. Projects drive waterfall orientation. Roadmap and hypothesis-testing-driven. Focus on feature and business value delivery. Products drive Agile orientation.
Visibility IT is a black box. PMOs create complex mapping and obscurity. Direct mapping to business outcomes, enabling transparency.

Source: Project to Product: How to Survive and Thrive in the Age of Digital Disruption with the Flow Framework, Mik Kersten, 2018

Traditional Product Manager vs. Agile Product Manager

Classic product management was born in 1931 and is common in the manufacturing sector. These classic Product Managers own vision, marketing, and ROI, but they don’t develop a product. It was not until 2010 that the more modern and more senior variant of the Product Manager role emerged. The one that takes part in developing a product and also often serves on the board of directors. Consequently, such Product Managers are a byproduct of the agile transformation and the scaling agile frameworks.

Further in this article, we will be dealing with the product-development-inclusive Product Manager variant, which was on the rise in the 2020s.

Table 2. Compare Product Manager, Product Owner, and Project Manager.

Note: Product Owner and Product Manager roles may be combined into a single position in small and medium organizations.

Conclusion and Tips

Product management is a promising career, isn’t it? And if you wish to persue a succesful Product Manger’s career, focus on:

  • Perfecting your technical knowledge
  • Mastering your UX skills; be an aesthete
  • Learning how to communicate with engineers and logical thinkers

To further delve into this subject I highly recommend reading Second thoughts on Project Managers vs Product Managers.

1 The History and Evolution of Product Management, Martin Eriksson,, Oct 2015


About The Author

With his automotive background Marcin goes beyond the 'Jira + software development' standard. He likes simple, up-to-five-sentence answers to complex questions.